top of page
  • Marci Kwon

what binds us?

by Marci Kwon


The next generation of race scholars has to address the fundamental paradox at the heart of minority discourse: how to proceed once we acknowledge, as we must, that “identity” is the very ground upon which both progress and discrimination are made. —Anne Anlin Cheng


The picture could have come from one of my mom’s photo albums (Fig. 1). It is only when you turn it over that the snapshot becomes, well, history. The photographer, Irene Poon, has sketched a key to the eleven sitters on the back of the print (Fig. 2), and all are Asian American artists born between 1910–36. The guy in the back row with the mirrored aviators is Carlos Villa, who grew up in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, showed in New York at Park Place Gallery in the 1960s, and became an influential teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute. Next to him is George Miyasaki, who was born in Hawaii and made lush Abstract Expressionist paintings after moving to Oakland in the 1950s. The woman in cream is Jade Snow Wong, also known as Connie, who wrote one the earliest autobiographies by an Asian American woman and supported herself by throwing pottery in a Chinatown shop window. Kay Sekimachi, to her right, wove diaphanous sculptures that seem more light and air than fiber. Nanying Stella Wong, or “Starla,” as she was called, was a star from birth: As an infant she made an appearance in her aunt Marion E. Wong’s film The Curse of Quon Gwon (1916), one of the earliest movies directed by a woman. Ruth Asawa sits at center. Her wire globules now float alongside familiar examples of mid-century modernism in museum galleries around the world, but at this moment in 2001 she was known in San Francisco as an ardent advocate of arts education.

Fig. 1: Irene Poon, photograph of luncheon for Leading the Way: Asian American Artists of the Older Generation, 2001. California Asian American Artists Biographcial Survey Collection, Series 1 Box 14, Folder 4, Stanford Special Collections.



Fig. 2: Irene Poon, recto of photograph of luncheon for Leading the Way: Asian American Artists of the Older Generation, 2001. California Asian American Artists Biographical Survey Collection, Series 1 Box 14, Folder 4, Stanford Special Collections.


These artists came together for the launch of Poon’s book Leading the Way: Asian American Artists of the Older Generation, held at a dim sum restaurant in San Francisco. “As I learned more about these artists,” Poon writes, “I wondered why I had never seen their names in the art history books when I was in school earning my degrees in art and photography.” Her memories echo those of Carlos Villa, who recalled being told in art school that there was “no Filipino art history.” They also reverberate with my own experience in graduate school, when a professor I was not close with told me that instead of writing about Asian Americans, I should “study Jewishness, because there are a lot of Jewish art historians.” What, I wondered to myself at the time, does that say about who is not an art historian?


While Poon calls the group Asian American, the term was actually invented in 1968, several decades after they were born. That year, UC Berkeley graduate students Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka coined Asian American to replace the colonialist designation oriental and unite the various Asian ethnic groups participating in the radical Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) into a single political entity. Started at San Francisco State College (now University), the TWLF was a coalition of Black, Latinx, and Asian American students who were against the Vietnam War and for a curriculum that would reflect the college’s diverse student population. Poon graduated from SFSC in 1967, amidst rising student unrest. She lived the early history of “Asian American,” and experienced firsthand the term’s roots in radical politics and interethnic solidarity.


Poon’s key reminds me of the names accompanying Byron Kim’s monumental Synecdoche (1991–present, Figs. 3-4). The work is a group portrait, and its sitters are people Kim met on the street, encountered at work, or knew in his daily life. Like a makeup artist, Kim mixed paint and wax to match the exact shade of his subject’s skin, applying the substance to an 8"x10" plywood panel. While the key that accompanies Synecdoche reveals the people associated with each panel, their names offer more questions than answers. How did Kim encounter this person? Who are they? What whole does the part of their skin color refer to? What is this colored grid a synecdoche of?


Synecdoche was the poster image for the 1993 Whitney Biennial, where it was shown alongside work by artists including Fred Wilson, Pépon Osorio, Nan Goldin, Renée Green, and Daniel Joseph Martinez. In the New York Times, critic Michael Kimmelman lamented that the Biennial’s focus on “political and social issues” left him “feeling battered by condescension.” The Time magazine critic Robert Hughes described the exhibition as “a fiesta of whining,” a phrase whose racializing language was no accident in a show featuring an unprecedented number of artists of color.


Fig. 3: Byron Kim, Synecdoche, 1991-Present, with reference key.


Fig. 4: Byron Kim, Synecdoche, 1991—present. Installation view at 1993 Whitney Biennial. Oil and wax on plywood. James Cohan Gallery, Photograph by Dennis Cowley.


The recent upsurge in white nationalism, xenophobia, and renewed attention to anti-Black and anti-Asian violence has led many to revisit that 1993 Biennial. Largely absent from these reappraisals is the fact that the inclusion of Asian American artists such as Kim and the brothers Bruce and Norman Yonemoto can be traced to the activism of Godzilla, the legendary Asian American arts group. Founded in 1990 by artists Ken Chu, Bing Lee, and Margo Machida, Godzilla arose from an informal network of Asian American and diaspora artists who regularly met for lunch in New York’s Chinatown. In 1991, Godzilla sent a letter to the Whitney Museum of Art protesting the omission of Asian American artists in that year’s Whitney Biennial and offering structural critiques of the museum’s staff and board. As scholar Howie Chen has discussed, many of Godzilla’s members had previously been involved in Basement Workshop, a pan-Asian arts organization founded in 1970 in direct response to the groundswell of Asian American activism that emerged from the Third World Liberation Front and the Civil Rights movement. There is a direct lineage from Kim’s presence in the 1993 Biennial to the radical, interethnic coalitions that gave rise to the very idea of an Asian America in the first place.


This history is at once eye-opening and sobering, for at times it feels that very little has changed in the past thirty years. Yet although Asian American artists have long been under-recognized by mainstream art institutions such as museums, the art market, and academia, this does not mean they did not exist. On the contrary, artists and makers of Asian descent have been working in the United States from their arrival on its shores. They ran photography studios; created and participated in arts organizations; showed in major exhibitions such as Whitney Annuals; and illustrated the covers of popular magazines including Time and Life. Research for the survey text Asian American Art: A History, 1850–1970 has identified more than one thousand artists of Asian descent working in California alone during that chronological span. The number is staggering, indicating not only the deep significance of art and art making for Asian Americans, but also the volume of work that remains to be studied, and has likely been lost.


This lack of institutional recognition originates in the very structures that gave rise to the Third World Liberation Front, and by extension the idea of “Asian American.” Xenophobia, racism, and other forms of discrimination are enforced by monolithic, Eurocentric narratives of art history. The supposed invisibility of Asian American artists is in fact a willful blindness that at once reduces an artist to their skin color and summarily dismisses them on those same terms.


Synecdoche knows all of this. It knows color is at once pigment and skin, and to deny one at the expense of the other is to rob the work of its complexity and perhaps even its beauty. Its dream of a world in which everyone quite literally takes up the same space is at once disturbing and beautiful, hopeful and a bit sinister in the way its idealism is enforced by that ur-form of modernism, the grid. Here, the modernist dream of pure form is shown as ineluctably entangled with race, modernity’s chief classificatory system of value and humanity. The work asks not just for inclusion, but about the terms of inclusion. What does it mean to show someone as just their skin color? What can we learn from skin color in the first place? Nothing and everything.


Look again at Poon’s snapshot. Although everyone pictured is Asian American, their experiences are different. Except for Miyasaki, the Japanese American artists in the picture were incarcerated during World War II. Many first learned to make art in the camps. Benjamen Chinn and Charles Wong grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown and experienced the neighborhood’s rapid modernization in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. Jade Snow Wong lived in Chinatown as well, although she also had to negotiate the patriarchal structures of her home life. The work of these artists is as distinctive as their histories. Their production ranges from figurative to abstract, and across painting, sculpture, weaving, ceramics, printmaking, and photography. Yet here they are, in the same book and at the same dim sum restaurant. On the back of the snapshot, their blue outlines flow together but are still distinctive. Solidarity, rather than homogenization, guides Poon’s picture.


I wonder what a group portrait of the Gold Art Prize awardees would look like. I hope they get to eat dim sum together.


coda: how to listen

Toshiko Takaezu places her hands upon the clay. It starts to turn under her touch. The lump of earth begins to stretch beneath her fingers like a plant growing toward the sun. She presses her thumb into its center, creating an indent that deepens as the pottery wheel turns. She listens to the sounds of the room: the wheel’s rhythmic whir, her hands gliding across clay, a sponge dipped in water and squeezed. Concentric circles emerge across the form’s surface, and she wonders if they are impressed with sound, like the grooves of a record. Or are they more like the rings of a tree, accretions of light, water, air, time, life?



Fig. 5: Toshiko Takaezu, Blue Black Form, 1958. Glazed porcelain.


“The most important thing about this piece,” she later explains, “is the dark space that you can’t see, the dark air that is in it that you can’t see.” She looks into this space and whispers something into the darkness, imagining her words inscribed into its interior. No one will see them or even know they are there unless she chooses to tell them. Her hands move to close the aperture, pinching its top into a smooth nipple, which she will later crown with a lake of electric blue, frozen into place by the kiln’s heat.


What she has made is not her but is of her (Fig. 5). It is a being unto itself. Its ringed sides, velvety blacks and glossy blues, and closed interior bear traces of many histories, grand and small. But the form does not speak, at least not in words. In the future, she will place a single bead inside such closed forms before sealing them. Holding the clay body, moving it, activates its voice, a voice that speaks in percussion, in the vibrations of its tiny bead banging within the void. Even if no one comes along to hold it, that’s fine. The bead will wait. It has something to say about how it came to be, where it has been, and where it is going. But to hear it speak, one must be willing to learn its distinctive language. Toshiko keeps this form with her for the rest of her life.


 

Marci Kwon is Assistant Professor of Art History at Stanford University. She is Co-Director

of the Asian American Art Initiative.


1. Anne Anlin Cheng, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief, Race and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 24.

2. Jade Snow Wong, Fifth Chinese Daughter (New York: Scholastic Books, 1950).

3. “Wong, Nanying Stella,” Asian American Art: A History, 1850–1970, ed. Gordon H. Chang, Mark Johnson, and Paul Karlstrom (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), 455-56.

4. Irene Poon, Leading the Way: Asian American Artists of the Older Generation (Wenham, MA: Gordon College, 2001), 4.

5. Carlos Villa, quoted in “A Circular Kind of Movement: A Conversation About the Works of Carlos Villa: Mary Valledor & Sherwin Rio,” available online at https://friendsindeed.art/news_events/a-circular-kind-of-movement

6. Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America: A History (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).

7. Michael Kimmelman, “Art View: At the Whitney, Sound, Fury, and Little Else,” New York Times, April 25, 1993, Section 2, p. 1; Robert Hughes, “Art: The Whitney Biennial: A Fiesta of Whining,” Time, March 22, 1993, p. 68.

8. Howie Chen, “Godzilla: Critical Origins,” in Godzilla: Asian American Arts Network, 1990–2001, ed. Howie Chen (New York: Primary Information, 2021), 15-16.

9. Elaine Kim, “Interstitial Subjects: Asian American Visual Art As a Site for New Cultural Conversations,” in Fresh Talk, Daring Gazes : Conversations on Asian American Art, eds. Elaine H. Kim, Margo Machida, and Sharon Mizota (Oakland: University of California Press, 2003).

10. Gordon Chang, “Foreword: Emerging from the Shadows, The Visual Arts and Asian American History,” in Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970, ed. Gordon H. Chang (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), xii.

11. Oral history interview with Toshiko Takaezu, June 16, 2003. Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C. Available online at https://www.aaa.si.edu/download_pdf_transcript/ajax?record_id=edanmdm-AAADCD_oh_256539



Comments


bottom of page